J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Illuminating the Illuminati Myth

I quite enjoyed Mike Jay’s recent article at Public Domain Review on the birth of our understanding of the Illuminati. The crucial text was the subtly titled Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, published in 1797 by Prof. John Robison of Edinburgh (shown here).

Jay, also author of A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, writes:
Robison’s vast conspiracy needed an imposing figurehead, a role for which Adam Weishaupt, the founder of the Bavarian Order of the Illuminati, seemed on the surface to be an unpromising candidate. Obsessive and domineering, Weishaupt had from the beginning found difficulty in attracting members to his secret society, where they were expected to adopt mystical pseudonyms chosen by him, jump through the hoops of his strict initiatic grades – Novice and Minerval, Illuminatus Minor and Major, Dirigens and Magus – and take up subservient roles in his grandiose but unfocused crusade for world domination. After 1784, when the Order had been exposed and banned by the Elector of Bavaria, Weishaupt had exiled himself to Gotha in central Germany, since when he appeared to have done little beyond producing a series of morose and self-justifying memoirs of his adventures.
As for Robison himself:
In 1785 he had begun to suffer from a mysterious medical condition, a severe and painful spasm of the groin: it seemed to emanate from beneath his testicles, but its precise origin baffled the most distinguished doctors of Edinburgh and London. Racked with pain and frequently bed-ridden, by the late 1790s he had become a withdrawn and isolated figure; he was using opium frequently, a regime which according to some of his acquaintances made him vulnerable to melancholy, confusion and paranoia. As the successive crises of the French Revolution shook Britain, the panic was particularly intense in Scotland, where ministers and judges whipped up constant rumours of fifth columnists and secret Jacobin cells. . . .

The physical sciences were in the grip of another French revolution, led by Antoine Lavoisier. During the 1780s Lavoisier had overthrown the chemistry of the previous century with his discovery of oxygen, from which he had been able to establish new theories of combustion and to begin the process of reducing all material substances to a basic table of elements. Lavoisier’s revolution had split British chemistry: some recognised that his technically brilliant experiments had transformed the science of matter, but for others his new and foreign terminology was, like the French metric system and the revolutionary Year Zero, an arrogant attempt to wipe away the accumulated wisdom of the ages and to eliminate the role of God. The old system of chemistry, with its mysterious forms of energy and its languages of essences and principles, had readily contained the idea of a life-force and the mysterious breath of the divine; but in Lavoisier’s cold new world, matter was reduced to inert building-blocks manipulated by the measurable forces of pressure and temperature.

Robison had never accepted the French theories, and by 1797 had worked the new chemistry deep into his Illuminatist plot. For him, Lavoisier – along with Britain’s most famous experimental chemist, the dissenting minister Joseph Priestley – was a master Illuminist, working in concert with infiltrated Masonic lodges to spread the doctrine of materialism that would underlie the new atheist world order. Madame Lavoisier’s famous salons, at which the leading Continental philosophes met, were now revealed by Robison to have been the venues for sacreligious rites where the hostess, dressed in the ceremonial robes of an occult priestess, ritually burned the texts of the old chemistry.
I can’t resist noting that after Lavoisier’s death during the Terror, his widow went on to marry Woburn’s own Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. (That marriage couldn’t be saved.)

TOMORROW: Warnings about the Illuminati come to America.

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